Monday, January 12, 2009

In Memoriam W.H.H. (Alfred Tennyson)

In Memoriam A.H.H. is a long poem by the English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, completed in 1849. It is a requiem for the poet's Cambridge friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage in Vienna in 1833, but it is also much more. Written over a period of 17 years, it can be seen as reflective of Victorian society at the time, and the poem discusses many of the issues that were beginning to be questioned. It is the work in which Tennyson reaches his highest musical peaks and his poetic experience comes full circle. It is regarded as one of the greatest poems of the 19th century. (from the Wikipedia article)


It is a great poem contrasting the natural world of violence and seeming senselessness, with the spiritual ideal of a world with meaning. The poem preceded Charles Darwin's discoveries, and it makes one somber and thrilled to observe that the central quest of humanity, for meaning and understanding, proceeds in apparently random, but unmistakably progressive, ways.

The poem is written in four-line A-B-B-A stanzas, and reading it aloud creates a mood of introspection and reflection about the deep mysteries of life. The poem in its entirety is available here.

There are many justifiably famous parts of the poem, including:
So runs my dream, but what am I?
An infant crying in the night
An infant crying for the light
And with no language but a cry. (Canto 54)

and, in seemingly posing a question to the unknown (at that time) Darwin

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life. (Canto 55)

I quote here two of my favorite Cantos from this poem:

Canto 50:
Be near me when my light is low,
When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
And tingle; and the heart is sick,
And all the wheels of Being slow.


Be near me when the sensuous frame
Is rack'd with pangs that conquer trust;
And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And Life, a Fury slinging flame.


Be near me when my faith is dry,
And men the flies of latter spring,
That lay their eggs, and sting and sing
And weave their petty cells and die.


Be near me when I fade away,
To point the term of human strife,
And on the low dark verge of life
The twilight of eternal day.


Canto 120:

I trust I have not wasted breath:
I think we are not wholly brain,
Magnetic mockeries; not in vain,
Like Paul with beasts, I fought with Death;


Not only cunning casts in clay:
Let Science prove we are, and then
What matters Science unto men,
At least to me? I would not stay.


Let him, the wiser man who springs
Hereafter, up from childhood shape
His action like the greater ape,
But I was born to other things.

Pertinent here is an excerpt from The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins:

Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it first works out
the reason for its own existence. If superior creatures from space
ever visit earth, the first question they will ask, in order to
assess the level of our civilization, is: 'Have they discovered
evolution yet?' Living organisms had existed on earth, without ever
knowing why, for over three thousand million years before the truth
finally dawned on one of them. His name was Charles Darwin. To he
fair, others had had inklings of the truth, but it was Darwin who
first put together a coherent and tenable account of why we exist.
Darwin made it possible for us to give a sensible answer to the
curious child whose question heads this chapter. We no longer have
to resort to superstition when faced with the deep problems: Is there
a meaning to life? What are we for? What is man? After posing the
last of these questions, the eminent zoologist G. G. Simpson put it
thus: 'The point I want to make now is that all attempts to answer
that question before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better
off if we ignore them completely.'

4 comments:

Pankaj said...

this statement by dawkins does put him in negative light. it is almost as if he derives masculine pleasure out of proving the senselessness of existence.

i think that all scientists or rationalists are dishonest in a certain regard. in the same breath as they refute the irrationality of human thought, they cling to it. no scientist would be willing to fully embrace the consequences that flow from a purely rationalist or evolutionary standpoint.

meaninglessness does flow from it, as does a destruction of any basis for "right" or "wrong", which does hold a central position in human live - do not be cruel, democracy and participation is to be valued, the "greater good" is to be valued, "equality" is good, we should care about posterity, killing is bad (endless value propositions that are at play every moment of our life). but most, or many scientists, do preach altruism. it is mostly due to ways of thinking inherited from upbringing, society, and yes, religion, rather than conclusions arrived at from purely rational thought.

one might argue that altruism also emerges from evolutionary selection. but that is hardly an argument to a human, a free agent, free to act as he chooses, here and now, whose actions are determined to some extent by life philosophy, or a certain attempt to make sense of of existence. you cannot tell him "you are kind because you must be so". he can say "but i can also be cruel, simply because i can""and why shouldn't i be".

a further argument to justify altruism could be - it makes sense if you want to live in an orderly world, devoid of constant uncertainty and struggle for basic survival. he could say, then it makes sense for me to uphold societal values of morality, as long as there is no risk for reprisal. nothing stops being from murdering in the death of night, when nobody will ever know.

the mind seems to be to be a mutation, or anomaly, which knows its own rules. isnt that how evolution progresses, with mutations. nothing really has an ultimate basis, and all philosophies, which are of fundamental importance, including "humanism", hang in mid air.

Harmanjit Singh said...

Hi Pankaj,

Dawkins is /not/ saying that existence is senseless. Scientists only refute metaphysical reasons for what we see in the world, and provide scientific ones.

Altruism is an evolutionary strategy, and is well-understood in socio-biology. Morals too.

The title of the book by Dawkins is "The Selfish Gene" and it is quite misleading to some, who can deduce that the book justifies selfism.

The thrust of the book is to explain altruistic behavior, in spite of the survival-of-the-fittest principle, and how humans can rise beyond the genetic imperative, be kind to each other, and use their minds for the betterment of themselves and the ecosystem.

As for scientists holding on to unscientific notions, do refer to:

http://harmanjit.blogspot.com/2008/11/to-walk-talk.html

They are humans first, and scientists later. They may understand the random nature of an accident, but they might still grieve over the death of a daughter.

The quest for freedom from suffering is not a scientific quest, in the sense that it is a practice and process to change oneself, and not a quest for knowledge.

E.g., knowledge of actualism itself is not sufficient.
Despite knowing a lot, we may not be happy and harmless in our acts. Somethings more, i.e., a /practice/ of a method, a persistent intent to be free and happy, etc. are needed.

pankaj said...

"Dawkins is /not/ saying that existence is senseless."

He should, since it follows from pure rationality. But he does not, meaning than he clings to metaphysics.

"Scientists only refute metaphysical reasons for what we see in the world, and provide scientific ones."

They do, especially when it comes to describing how the world operates, and rightly so. But for the ultimate question - "how should one live" they borrow from metaphysics.

"Altruism is an evolutionary strategy, and is well-understood in socio-biology. Morals too."

It may be, but it is by no means universal. The instinct to kill seems to be equally a part of the human nature. Rationally, neither is superior to the other.

The title of the book by Dawkins is "The Selfish Gene" and it is quite misleading to some, who can deduce that the book justifies selfism.

If rational thought leads to Selfism, why not?

The thrust of the book is to explain altruistic behavior, in spite of the survival-of-the-fittest principle, and how humans can rise beyond the genetic imperative, be kind to each other, and use their minds for the betterment of themselves and the ecosystem.

As for scientists holding on to unscientific notions, do refer to:

http://harmanjit.blogspot.com/2008/11/to-walk-talk.html

They are humans first, and scientists later. They may understand the random nature of an accident, but they might still grieve over the death of a daughter.

The love of ones immediate family, is immediate, compelling, overwhelming and instinctive, and doesnt really require metaphysical justification (like pain doesnt). Ideals of altruism -(a peaceful world, compassion for the starvers in Africa etc), however, do.

Harmanjit Singh said...

Hi Pankaj,

I recommend you read "The Selfish Gene" to understand the biological basis of altruism.

Since you use words such as "superior" and "ideal" and "how should one live", I daresay you are talking of ethics and values, which is a human construct, cultural, and is not like, for example, the principle of gravity which exists independent of humanity.

What I am trying to point to you is that ethics has become part of human condition after a long period of evolution. The hunter-gatherers, e.g., didn't have any notion (or to that extent) of non-violence or pacifism or respect for privacy.

Ethics is important, but it should be subjected to rational scrutiny, and not be accepted on gut-feeling and intuition.

Do spend some time and read the "Selfish Gene" (which is not a perfect book, it has its flaws). :-)

You can also peruse:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altruism#Altruism_in_ethology_and_evolutionary_biology